Women and Crime

Nellie Bly

The New York World/June 28, 1889


Inspector Byrnes Tells Nellie Bly Some Remarkable Things

He Says There’s a Female in Every Crime.

And that She’s “the Finest Tag that Can Be Put on a Criminal’s Shoulders.”

There are very few persons in the world who haven’t imagined they were especially fitted to fill one of three positions. If they did not want to be actors they longed to be writers, and if they did not want to be writers they hungered to be detectives. Do you not know among your acquaintance several who are positive that they possess great dramatic ability, which the world would recognize if they could only secure an opening? And don’t you know several more who are positive they would startle the literary world by their genius if editors were not so mean and would only print their productions? And haven’t you other acquaintances who could have solved the Whitechapel mystery and cleared up the Cronin case in twenty-four hours if they had only the chance?

I have known many such persons, and I think the less chance for an opening they get the greater happiness they have. I know one woman, short, fat, ugly, black, forty-five and gray, who imagines herself a second Charlotte Cushman. Every Summer she inserts an advertisement in the newspapers to the effect that “a beautiful, prepossessing young star, of great dramatic ability, wants a manager with $5,000: can make $20,000 in six months.” And there is another woman who never reads of anything, from a bank robbery or murder down to a lost pug dog, who does not think she could solve the mystery if someone would only recommend her to some detective bureau.

I decided to consult Inspector Byrnes, who has more experience with would-be detectives than anyone else in New York, as to what chance there is on his force for women.

“Tell me,” I said, “have you many applications from women who wish to become detectives?”

“I average two or three a week,” he said, as he rested his elbow on the desk and toyed with a penholder. “How do I get them? In person and by letter. The strangest part of it is that not one woman out of fifty is a New Yorker.”

“What class of women are they?”

“That I cannot say positively. There are two classes to which they do not belong—the very rich and the bad. They are always dressed well and seem educated. I think they are mostly women who live at some distance from New York, and who have nothing to do but read fictitious stories in which some wonderful female detective figures or police stories of some capture, and they dream over them until they become possessed with the idea that they are cunning and they want a chance to show it.”

“Do they expect to make money by it?”

“I don’t think they do. They offer to work for nothing or anything, jf I will only give them a trial. They all think they have the natural intuition and ability to accomplish a great deal.”

Women Cannot Keep Secrets

“Do you ever give any of them any work?”

“I never do. I never want to offend the ladles, of course,” said the Inspector, as he idly twirled my parasol like a top, “so when they urge me to give them ‘just one trial, now do,’ I always say there are reasons why I cannot. That’s all you have to do, just touch a woman’s curious chord and you get no peace until she is satisfied on that score. Women can’t keep a secret. There was a clever woman in here the other day—a well-dressed, handsome woman—and she said, ‘Now, Inspector, why won’t you employ a woman?’ ‘Because,’ I told her, ‘no woman with a husband or sweetheart can keep a secret.’ ‘Then I am just the one you want,’ she said, springing to her feet; ‘my husband is dead and my heart is in the grave,’” and the Inspector laughed heartily at the recollection.

“But that Is true.” he continued gravely; “no woman can keep a secret. If she has a husband or sweetheart she wants to show how much she trusts him by sharing the secret. When I do employ a woman, if possible, I put her to work without telling her anything about the case, or if that is impossible, and she must be told, I always put someone on to shadow the woman while she is working. I never knew a woman I could trust in such affairs. We don’t need women in this office. There never was a case in which it was positively necessary to have the aid of a woman, and yet we never have a case that a woman does not figure in and help us to a very large extent.”

“I don’t understand,” I said, as the inspector watched to see the effect of his words.

“You know the old saying that in every case there is a woman at the bottom of it? Well, if a woman isn’t at the bottom of it she is always in it. The first thing we do when we want to find a criminal is to find the woman. We search out his wife or sweetheart and devote our attention to her. They are the finest tag that can be on a criminal’s shoulders. Unknowingly they give us all the pointers for our work. There isn’t a man who gets into trouble but has some woman he loves, and if he makes his escape, sure enough the longing to communicate with the one he loves is a thing he cannot conquer. In some way he sends her a message, and then we have him. If she’s his wife she will stick to him till death and sacrifice everything to aid him. But her devotion only brings him nearer to the clutches of the law, for we know every move she makes. If she is his sweetheart she has tenderness enough in her to remember how he has cared for her and offers him the consolation he seeks, so in either case the woman unknowingly helps us capture our man.

Betraying Their Lovers

“A woman is a mill-stone around a thief’s neck,” said the Inspector. “Why? Because he will take longer chances to see the woman he loves than he will to gamble or drink.”

“Then women are of great service to you after all,” I said.

“Knowingly, no; unknowingly, yes,” replied the Inspector.

“Have you never, in all your experience, known a woman to do good detective work?”

“Well, the woman who helped in the McGlein case did good work, but she did it unknowingly. She was a girl who had gone into an unhappy life and she wished to reform. I heard her story and sent her back to her old mother in the country. Well, the neighbors were very uncharitable, she told me afterwards, and her mother died of a broken heart, and there was nothing left for that girl to do but to drift back to New York, and into her old life. One night I saw three women fighting on the street and I found the one who came off worst was the girl I had sent to the country. I took her up again and got her to meet McGlein. She did not know what for. She told me after he was convicted that if she had known what the result was to be she would not have done it for any consideration. She thought that McGlein knew a thief that I wanted and that I expected to learn his whereabouts through McGlein.”

“Why shouldn’t a woman make a good detective?”

Never Successful As Detectives

“A truthful, self-respecting woman can never make a detective,” said the Inspector slowly. “Detectives are called upon to do disreputable things which a refined woman could never do. I never knew, as I told you, a woman who was a successful detective. They may be of benefit in society cases which are run by small private concerns but then only to destroy a man’s or woman’s domestic happiness.”

“What class of women do you think belong to detective agencies?”

“Well, now,” he said. “I think it would be very difficult for a woman to be a good woman and be a professional detective. No good woman will pry into the domestic secrets of others to betray them. I think good women have a gentle, sweet honesty that would prevent them from doing such things. Some of these private agencies are blots on the city. They watch the newspapers and when they see any notices of articles lost or stolen or persons missing, they write to the persons advertising that by calling upon them they can give some information. When the interested persons call they are persuaded to employ the agents, who work, with no result, as Iong as the victims will pay. I have known of their sending anonymous letters to married people to arouse suspicion and jealousy of each other, and then slip into a paying position of watching the suspected one. I had a woman complain to me once about her jealousy being worked upon till she employed a man to watch her husband. She had no grievances aginst her husband, only her suspicions were aroused. I sent for the husband, and he confided in me a like story only that he had employed a woman to watch his wife. I got the two detectives, and found they were husband and wife, and had been working to keep the other couple apart so as to give them plenty of money. That is only one case. There are many like it.”

Inspector Byrnes is a rather handsome, well-built man. He is 5 feet 10 inches in height, and weighs 180 pounds. His closely cut brown hair is slightly threaded with gray, and his drooping brown mustache fails to hide the ever-happy and pleasing smile which aids the bluish-gray frank eyes to cheat one into the idea that this man has never known or gazed on the misery and wlckedness of the world.

Inspector Byrnes has for twenty-six years been tussling with crime and criminals. He began first as a policeman, “just because he thought it was nice to wear a blue uniform and brass buttons” and get the best of law-breakers, so he says. He was faithful and did good work, and one after another he mounted the rungs of the ladder, for in his business no position can be skipped for one in advance. Eleven years ago he became inspector.

“And l am more green to-day than the day I started,” said the Inspector, which means the business has not grown to be an old story to him. “I live in my business. I have no pleasures or vacations; I do not attend places of amusement. I attend to business during every moment of my waking hours, and when I am asleep I dream of it.”

The Inspector’s Busy Life

Inspector Byrnes has lived at 59 West Ninth street since 1875. He has a pleasant wife and a lovely group of five daughters, bright, interesting and clever children. There is no son to bear the father’s name. The Inspector will be forty-seven years old on June 15, but he looks much younger.

Some of the Inspector’s most interesting cases have found their way into print. Several years ago he compiled a book entitled “Professional Criminals of America.” The book was the most complete thing of its kind ever published. It contained the photographs and history of most well-known criminals in America and has been the means of identifying many of them. After Inspector Byrnes sold the rights of his book to his publisher an effort was made to have a copy of “Professional Criminals of America” given to every American Consul. The Inspector says that American Consuls are frequently victimized by professional criminals, who happen to be away from this country. In some way the movement fell through.

Besides this book Mr. Byrnes, in connection with Mr. Julian Hawthorne, has published five books, among which are “The Great Bank Robbery,” “A Tragic Mystery,” “The American Penman” and “Another’s Crime.” The latest work, just published in serial form, is “Sergeant Von,” a story of a unique series of crimes committed in this country and Europe. This is solely Inspector Byrnes’s work.

“If one built a wall around Now York,” said the Inspector, when speaking about keeping trace of criminals, “one could know the city perfectly and be able to fight with what work came beneath one’s note, but if the search had to be made outside of the walls for an escaped criminal or an accomplice the searchers would be the worst, as one could well imagine. There is never a crime in any town or city that I do not take an interest in and work out mentally to see how, why and when the crime was committed. Thus I know what is going on, and if by any chance any part of the work should fall on me I know immediately what to do, for I have studied the case until I know as much as if I had been working on the ground. People get the idea that detecting is an easy thing and that anyone can do it; but in this, as in other walks in life, one must be able.to conceive original ideas and be able to work them out. If they try to follow in the footsteps of another they will fail just as sure as death. But it is a great business and my heart is wrapped up in it, ” concluded the Inspector.

The Little Chance for Ex-Convicts

Probably no man of the same income gives more to charity than does Inspector Byrnes. I suppose most people would think it was not charity to give aid to criminals, but criminals are the ones who receive aid from Byrnes’s pocketbook. Why does he give them money? To help keep them out of jail as long as possible. As he explained to me, after a thief has served his sentence he is cast out on a world that has no mercy for him. He is branded and no one will employ him. What is he to do? Steal, of course. So when Inspector Byrnes meets these men he say:

“Now I will help you stay out of jail as long as possible. I cannot get you work without giving your history, then no one will employ you, so if you can get work do so by all means, for I am always on your track, and your first misstep sends you back to prison. If you can get no, work and are hungry come to me. I will aid you.”

And they do come. One man, with the bearing of a gentleman, was, some time ago on his release from jail, brought before the Inspector.

“What are you going to do? asked the Inspector.

“I don’t know,” responded the man despondently. “I don’t want to steal, but I can’t get work and I won’t beg.”

“And you think as you haven’t many more years to live that you might as well spend them in jail,” added the Inspector. The man assented. “Don’t steal, because I am on your track and will have to send you up, and it’s hard that you should die in prison. You should be spending your remaining days, which are few, in preparing for death.”

The tears rolled down the old thief’s cheeks. He went out with enough money to keep him for a few days, with instructions to come back for more when that was gone. He did come back. Not for more money, but to beg the Inspector to get him into some hospital where he might die. The Inspector made all arrangements at a hospital, and when I saw him he had an engagement to meet the thief to take him to the place he sought.

The thief belonged to a good family years ago. He was a reckless, dissipated young man, and gambling caused his downfall. He served his sentence and never regained what he lost. For forty years he has been a thief, and in that time has stolen two or three million dollars. No one in New York knows his real name. Today he is old, ill, friendless and penniless, and at this time may be lying on a white cot in a hospital, waiting for death to relieve him of this life, with little hopes of a better one.

(Source: https://www.newspapers.com/image/78653275/?terms=by%2BNellie%2BBly)


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